I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of the artist-as-observer. If we as artists had to boil down our purpose to one role, it’s that of an observer. We observe a lot of things: cultural trends, regional beliefs, popular aspirations, etc. To observe means to take one step out of bounds and look at things. To be an artist is to be a mirror, of sorts, to some aspect or element of those things. In a way I’m re-visiting some theories I studied in graduate school in Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. It’s nice when school texts come back into your life in comforting, constructive ways. Here’s three things that have been on my mind regarding making art and thinking about art:
1. My friend Dan Kois wrote a wonderful profile of Lynda Barry in this week’s New York Times Magazine. Barry has made a career out of being the artist’s artist, and has made a micro-career out of teaching writers to be true and good writers. Teaching is hard, but the article deftly illustrates how she does it so well. I have a lot of friends that have taken her workshops, and they have all become devoted parishioners of the Church of Barry.
2. I just watched George Harrison: Living in the Material World on HBO. It’s a mesmerizing documentary. I love The Beatles, but kind of forgot the sort of spiritual journey that Harrison created for himself. He didn’t strive to be perfect; he strove to be aware. The role of the observer came easy to him, even though he was such a public figure. It came easy to him because he knew it was an essential position for him to inhabit. His work was pure and true to himself.
3. Church. We all need a place of meditation and concentration. The first couple years after undergrad, I attempted to have my studio in my house to disastrous effect. I wasn’t disciplined enough, and there was always something to distract me. The laundry wasn’t going to wash itself. The cats needed to someone to throw them a toy. A Law & Order marathon was just about to start. I used anything as an excuse to escape. The white of the canvas is an oppressive force, and I was too green to stand up to it. After years of renting a studio space outside of my house, I moved it back into our home upon moving to Boston, and I haven’t looked back. I don’t know what I would do without it being so close. This creative passenger we harbor needs to have an immediate workspace; otherwise, it will atrophy. It’s our space to make things and to think about things. It is the place where we can be vulnerable and sincere. It’s where we get shit done.